Strengthening Your Application
Before applying to graduate school, it's a good idea to assess how competitive your application will be. As early as possible, learn what the requirements might be for the type of program that interests you. If you don't meet an academic requirement, such as having taken statistics or learned a foreign language, discuss your situation with the admissions staff or committee at the school you want to attend to see if you can make up work once you are enrolled; do not, however, assume flexibility. Be aware of possible requirements and fulfill them before applying, if possible.
Some programs require evidence of highly developed skills in addition to the work shown on your transcript. For example, graduate programs in design or creative writing usually require a portfolio. Ph.D. programs may ask to see a research paper. If you don't have the experience or skills expected for graduate study, then plan to develop them before applying. Jobs, internships, and independent research are excellent ways to confirm your intereste in graduate study and make your application more competitive. Research programs and speak with faculty, alumni, or a pre-grad advisor to make an honest assessment of the potential success of your application.
Managing Your Time
Some programs require that you start preparing your application as much as a year or a year and a half in advance of matriculation. Visit the schools' website for information on deadlines, remembering that it is often to your advantage to submit your application materials well in advance of stated deadlines. Plan early to collect letters of recommendation and take any necessary standardized tests.
It is a good idea to keep records of when each item is due for each school. We also suggest that you plan backwards from deadlines and allow extra time to deal with last minute problems. Make copies of all paperwork in case something is lost in the mail. If you send applications by registered mail, make sure you have a record that they were mailed on time.
Financing Your Education
When you speak to faculty about graduate school, find out how graduate students in your field of study are typically funded. If Penn has a program like the one to which you plan to apply, you might want to speak to the graduate chair or administrative assistant and ask how Penn students in the department/program are funded. Five questions you might want to ask:
1. Is one automatically considered for funding when one applies for admission? Does the program accept students who are not funded? How do these students pay for their educations?
2. Are most students expected to get need-based financial aid, work part-time, or take out loans?
3. Do most students get fellowships? Are they non-service fellowships, teaching fellowships, or a combination? What kind of stipends might one expect? Is tuition covered? Are there fees (e.g., health insurance, computer fees) that aren't covered?
4. Are students generally funded for the entire length of the program? Is funding guaranteed only for part of the program? Do students have to compete for funding at any point in the program and, if so, what are the criteria for that competition? What are some of the options for funding when fellowships run out?
5. Are there national fellowships to which one might apply? What are the procedures for such fellowships (i.e., direct application, departmental/university nomination, interviews)?
When you decide which schools you plan to apply, you will probably want to ask these questions of them as well, as not all schools or programs may offer the same types of assistance. Note that many of your questions about applying for financial aid will be answered when you receive the application brochures and program information from the schools in which you are interested. Ask for financial aid information when you request information from the schools (they will generally include it anyway, but it can't hurt to ask). When you receive application brochures, look them over carefully. Some may offer suggestions and addresses for financial aid information, special fellowships within the school, and even outside fellowship opportunities.
Check out the Career Services library for additional fellowship opportunities. You may also want to consult the bibliography on funding prepared by the Van Pelt Library reference staff. There may be a national fellowship competition for people in your field of interest (science, humanities, engineering, etc.).* You may be eligible to apply for fellowships for minorities, women, or other special groups.
* Students in the College of Arts and Sciences who are interested in the Mellon Fellowship, the National Science Foundation Fellowship, or the Jacob K. Javits Fellowship should see www.upenn.edu/curf for further information. To be competitive, students should have at least a 3.7 GPA.
By the beginning of the year prior to the one in which you hope to matriculate (e.g. fall of 2013 for fall 2014 admission), you should begin checking deadlines and procedures for applications, financial aid, and fellowships.
Some Other Things to Keep in Mind:
Some programs require you to fill out a FAFSA form (available through the Office of Financial Aid). Find out if you will need to do this, and take a look at the form as early as possible. You may need to dig up financial/tax information on yourself and your parents; be prepared for it.
Some programs only let in students who are funded (at least in part) by some sort of fellowship. If this is the case in you field, you may never need to fill out a financial aid form at all----if the program doesn't offer you some sort of merit-based aid, they won't let you in at all. This is not true of all programs, but it is true of some.
If you are accepted into a program and are not offered financial aid, think very carefully about your options. Are you willing to go into debt to finance your education? Will you be able to work while pursuing your graduate degree? How much debt do you have from your undergraduate education, and when will you have to start paying that back? In some fields, it might be worth it to go into debt for graduate school; in others, it might not. This is of course a personal decision----but think about it before committing yourself to a program.
Financial Aid Links: